Math Learning Disabilities: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

Math is an unavoidable and required knowledge. Whether in science, business, or daily living, we cannot escape the use of numbers. Every job, from the rocket scientist to the sheep herder, requires the use of math!

The effects of math failure during the years of schooling, as well as math illiteracy in adult life, can seriously handicap both daily living and vocational prospects.

The definition of a mathematics learning disability includes well below average mathematical academic performance for age that is not attributable to an intellectual disability (which is defined by IQ below 70). The term dyscalculia, which means inability to calculate, is often used to describe math learning disabilities.

Among students classified as learning disabled, math difficulties are as prevalent as reading difficulties. According to McLeod and Crump about one-half of students with learning disabilities require supplemental work in mathematics.

What are the symptoms of math learning disabilities?

Symptoms include:

  • Poor understanding of the signs +, -, ÷ and x, or may confuse these mathematical symbols.
  • Difficulty with addition, subtraction, multiplication and division or may find it difficult to understand the words “plus,” “add,” “add-together.”
  • Immature strategies such as counting all instead of counting on. The child may workout 137 + 78 by drawing 137 dots and then 78 dots and then counting them all.
  • Poor mental arithmetic skills.
  • May have trouble even with a calculator due to difficulties in the process of feeding in variables.
  • Inability to notice patterns. The world of math is full of patterns and the ability to see, predict and continue patterns is a key math skill. Take the sequence of the 5 x table for example: 5, 10, 15, 20, 25 etc. This is a very clear pattern but a student with math learning disabilities may not readily spot it.
  • Inability to generalize. Being able to generalize makes life so much simpler in math, but a student with math learning disabilities may find this very hard. They might not see that knowing that 3 + 4 = 7 means they also know that 30 + 40 = 70, or even that 3 inches + 4 inches = 7 inches.
  • May reverse or transpose numbers for example 63 for 36, or 785 for 875.
  • Difficulty with conceptualizing time and judging the passing of time.
  • Difficulty with everyday tasks like checking change.
  • Difficulty keeping score during games.
  • Inability to grasp and remember mathematical concepts, rules, formulae, and sequences.
  • Extreme cases may lead to a phobia of mathematics and mathematical devices.

Finding the cause will help solve the problem

Successful intervention is dependent on finding the cause or causes of a problem. Most problems can only be solved if one knows their causes. A disease such as pellagra, also called the disease of the four D’s — dermatitis, diarrhea, dementia and death — took the lives of thousands in the Southern states of America during the early part of the twentieth century. Today, pellagra is virtually unknown because we know that it is caused by a vitamin B3 deficiency. A viable point of departure would therefore be to ask the question, “What causes math learning disabilities?”

Mathematics consists of three aspects

Foundational skills: 

Research has shown that visual and auditory processing, visual memory, visual-spatial memory and logical thinking (which makes problem solving possible) are the most important foundational skills of math.

Mercer identified three basic problem areas in the perceptual field that affect performance in mathematics: figure-ground differentiation, discrimination and spatial orientation.

Figure-ground problems may cause difficulties in keeping individual problems separate from each other. The student may lose his place on a worksheet, confuse problem numbers with digits in the problem itself, or not finish the problem, etc.

Visual discrimination problems tend to cause inversions in number recognition, confusion among coins, confusion among operation symbols, confusion between the hands of the clock, and the like.

Auditory discrimination problems cause confusion in oral counting and among endings of number words, such as /fourteen/, /forty/, etc.

Spatial problems may cause reversals and affect the ability to write problems horizontally or vertically, to understand before-after concepts, to understand the importance of directionality which, in turn, could affect regrouping, and to align rows of numbers with varying digits. Additionally, the child may have problems putting decimals in the right place, using the number line, understanding positive and negative integers, etc. Also affected are the ability to tell time, to understand geometry and any other mathematical concepts which have to do with spatial and temporal orientations and relationships.

Mathematical skills:

There are many things in mathematics that the learner must learn to do, like, for example, the skills of counting, adding and subtracting, multiplication and division, applying place value and fractions, and reading time.


There is much in math that one simply has to know and therefore has to learn, for example many terms, definitions, symbols, theorems and axioms. These are all things that the learner must know, not things that he must know how to do.

A child, who does not know what a sphere is, will have to guess when confronted by twelve objects and the question, “Which of the above objects have the same shape as a sphere?”

Learning is a stratified process

It should also be noted that learning is a stratified process. Certain skills have to be mastered first, before it becomes possible to master subsequent skills.

In order to be a basketball player, a person first has to master the foundational skills, e.g. passing, dribbling, defense, and shooting. In the same way, in order to do math, a child first has to learn the foundational skills of math, like visual perception and visual memory.

The second step would be to master mathematical skills, which must be done in a sequential fashion. One has to learn to count before it becomes possible to learn to add and subtract. Suppose one tried to teach a child, who had not yet learned to count, to add and subtract. This would be quite impossible and no amount of effort would ever succeed in teaching the child these skills. The child must learn to count first, before it becomes possible for him to learn to add and subtract.

The third step would be to ensure that a learner catches up on the knowledge aspect of math.


Edublox offers help to students with mild to severe math learning disabilities. Our math help consists of:

  • Developing foundational math skills such as focused and sustained attention; visual and auditory processing; visual, sequential and working memory; and reasoning.
  • Application of math skills, for example, mental math, applying place value and fractions, reading time, doing word sums, et cetera.
  • An in-depth understanding of math terminology.

Book a free consultation to discuss your child’s math learning needs.

Key takeaways

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